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Love German Books: "Everybody’s loving it, so I thought by rights I ought to hate it – but I can’t, dammit."

Date: May 6 2010

Everybody’s loving it, so I thought by rights I ought to hate it – but I can’t, dammit. Broken Glass Park (trans. Tim Mohr) is the story of Sascha Naimann, a seventeen-year-old living in a Russian ghetto near Frankfurt. Her stepfather has murdered her mother and her lover and Sascha's plan is to kill him back. So far, so juvenile. Yet the book has a large cast of quirky characters that lift it out of the teen segment and make it what’s commonly known as a jolly good read.

Let me state right here that the claim on the back cover that the novel “recalls the narrative art of Zadie Smith” is bollocks. Smith, I suspect, would have pulled her plot a little tighter than Bronsky has here – but perhaps the reviewer was casting about to find a comparison for the “fiction about immigrants that isn’t about being an immigrant” genre, one that isn’t all that established in Germany. Because despite the basic coordinates and the setting, Broken Glass Park isn’t really about being Russian in Germany.

Instead it’s about young love, young hate, the family and the community. Although Sascha falls into that hardworking, studious category of immigrant so beloved in US fiction (think The Kiterunner and Girl in Translation, The Namesake, etc. etc.), the book’s really about being a traumatised teenager, regardless of nationality. Our heroine meets a comparatively wealthy father and son, sleeps with a Nazi, has various terrible accidents and, you know, comes to terms with stuff.

In between we get plenty of cameo appearances from the Russian community, from the blonde who walks round and round the courthouse in the hope of meeting a nice lawyer to the disabled chess genius with a talent for narrating porn films. The Broken Glass Park of the title is where the bad kids hang out, although sadly some of the later broken glass gets lost in translation, unavoidably so I think.

On the subject of translation, it’s rather good. Tim Mohr has a fine hand for dialogue and cusses. Here’s a sample conversation between Sascha’s younger sister and brother, aged 3 and about ten:

“That was my card, you buttfucker,” says Alissa. “Scum,” retorts Anton.

And I rarely had that oh I’d have done that differently feeling.

All in all, it’s a tad fluffy but a decent, quick read. It’s also a good book to introduce younger readers to the worlds of international writing out there without scaring them back into their shells. Alina Bronsky is probably still touring the States right now, and she does a good line in cute photos, belying the fact that she has three kids – respect.

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